First chapter of Billionaire's Muse #3

(Billionaire's Playground)

PROLOGUE

 

Marcus

 

Indescribable scents, impossible to capture on film, added to the horror of the view in front of me. Not for the first time today, I asked why I did this to myself, why I continued to put myself through this purgatory. 

I blinked twice, the child that had been laughing mere minutes ago, now lying broken, with unseeing eyes. Those eyes seemed to capture my soul and tear a piece of it from my body. Pain for the dead was something I’d never learnt to deal with. These people didn’t deserve to die in this way, lying in a pool of fly-infested blood. 

Who deserved that, and for what?

The sounds of gunfire weren’t unusual, but being so close, the bullet whizzing past my head? That was new. I’d known it was stupid to get in closer just to capture the child laughing. Her laughing face had depicted the truth, that living in hell didn’t mean there was no hope, no joy. 

Then the bastards had stolen that from her. My vision blurred, and I blinked furiously, fighting past my own emotions to capture the picture. This child needed their story told. Those monsters shouldn’t get away with these atrocities. This was for the casualties, so they wouldn’t be forgotten in the political agenda of war that left a country desolate.

The light above the bombed-out building framed the backdrop, with hues of deep purples that cast an almost grey shadow over what was once most likely home to the child. 

More children’s cries were followed by screams as people ran from the ensuing chaos the mortar attack had caused. I took a deep, shaky breath and clicked the shutter on my camera, capturing the misery, the deprivation, the carnage of a war that no one could fully understand unless they’d lived and breathed it. 

These people, hiding in the dusty, scattered ruins of their demolished homes, were the ones that the world’s media should be focusing on, not the political wrangling being used to try to justify this. It was a fucking disgrace, and as I moved to lower my camera, I knew at that moment, I couldn’t do this any longer. That if I continued, I wasn’t sure there would be anything left inside me but the black sucking hole of self-destruction. It seemed the world I’d chosen to immortalise was nothing more than death's gruesome playground. 

Ten years, ten years of capturing the world’s atrocities was more than enough. As the thought registered, mortar fire rained down on a building no more than thirty feet from me, spewing concrete in every direction as it erupted. I cursed under my breath. Sweat dripped into my eyes as I ducked behind the remnants of a wall, my arse hitting the ground hard. 

Huge chunks of rubble dug into my jeans, the sharp edges trying to break through the thick material.

“Marcus, for fuck’s sake, are you okay?” called Steve from the direction of where I’d left him cowering the second I’d mentioned I wanted to take several more pictures before we headed out of hell. He’d been my assistant from when I’d started out, and I could hear the genuine fear in his voice over the chaos going on around me.

“If you’re not dead, then you’re gonna be in ten seconds if you don’t fucking answer me.”

“Keep your hair on, Steve, I’m okay,” I shouted back, not because I thought the seven stone weakling could actually kick my arse, more because I didn’t want him getting his arse shot at if he decided to come and find me. We’d become friends over the years, and I knew he had my back.

Inching to the edge of the wall, it was hard to see past the plume of concrete dust to check where the shooters were. I inhaled deeply, regretting it when dust filled my lungs and I had to fight the urge to cough. Holding on to my camera, I used my other hand to pull up the scarf hanging around my neck to cover my lower face. Working on trying not to cough up a lung, I did a countdown in my head. 

Steadier, I peeked out to check where I was going to run and what I could use as a shield. A second later, I was up and darting in between jagged bits of building. They definitely wouldn’t shield a six-foot-three guy like me, not in my wildest dreams, so I tried hard not to think about how exposed I was. I didn’t exhale until I rounded the building where I’d left Steve. 

“Thank fuck,” Steve said the second I appeared. “Why the fuck do you do this to me? I’ve aged twenty years in the last two minutes, I’m sure of it.”

I shook my head, working on trying to lighten the situation for both of us. “Give over. You’ve always looked like an old fucker.” He hadn’t. He was three years younger than my thirty-six, but some days, like now, he looked older than me, with the deep lines etched into his face.

“Ha fucking ha. Get your gear. We need to get out of here, now. That was far too fucking close for comfort. My job is to assist you, not get my arse shot at.” 

His genuine fear stopped me from coming back with a flippant response. He liked to bitch and complain, but he didn’t often get spooked. Pale cheeks and eyes that wheeled around as he spoke told me this had been a ‘come to Jesus’ moment he’d not wanted.

Quickly packing my camera back into its bag, I slung it over my shoulder. Steve was ready to go and motioned for me to follow before he took off at a sprint in the opposite direction to the gun and mortar fire. Being that much lighter than me, he was a lot faster. 

I dug deep in my reserve tank and upped my pace to keep up with him. Years of working out did little in fifty-degree heat while wearing a flak jacket that felt like a fifty-pound rucksack strapped to my chest. 

Sweat drenched my shirt, and it rubbed against my skin, leaving it raw by the time the jeep came into view. We’d borrowed it from the guy at the airfield for a princely sum. I could have bought the thing brand new for cheaper. This one looked fit for the knackers yard, but I’d handed over my cash, knowing how much these people needed it. I made a mental note to get Jed, my mother’s personal assistant, to ensure the families in the village, which was now no more than rubble, were added to the foundation's allocation of funding. It would never replace their loved ones, and that was the bit I’d come to loath, but it would help them gain some of their life back. 

Money. What good was it if you couldn’t stop this shit? The number of zeros on my bank balance had meant I could use my cash to help get me to get closer to the action. What it didn’t do was take away the reality of what was happening in the world. 

Years ago, I’d been naive when I’d first started out taking photos in places like this. I’d seen the shot, the image, but not the impact on the location or the people. I’d been wrapped up in my own self-importance and getting the perfect picture. That had waned very fast. It was a child, much like the one I’d captured today, that had changed that for me. 

The small boy had been sitting on the step outside his home. It looked as if he’d been playing with a battered-looking car when, for some reason I couldn’t fathom, he’d been shot in the head and had fallen back against the door. From the left side, he looked like he was simply resting until I’d moved just a fraction and brought him into focus. The right side of his face had been partially missing. Dried blood covered his right shoulder, flaking down onto his chubby legs, making him look like one of the Halloween characters from a scary movie. I’d taken a shot from both angles, and when I developed the film, I cried at the cruelty of life.

Coming from a privileged background, where I’d been able to have every whim met, money had shielded me from the hard truths of the world. That little boy had taken my reality and shown me that money meant nothing if it couldn’t protect the weak, the innocent. From that moment, something had changed inside me that was reflected in my work. Someone once wrote that I used my heart, not my eyes, to take pictures. I wasn’t sure it was that, at least not fully. To me, it was the heart of the person I wanted to capture. 

I stumbled to a halt a few seconds after Steve, who was already getting in the jeep, appearing none the worse for our jog. My chest burned as I sucked in air through the scarf covering my mouth.

Steve sat in the driver’s seat and switched on the engine. “Get in. Come on, stop pissing about.” He didn’t even appear winded as he spoke.

I got in, my chest continuing to heave as I placed my camera bag in the footwell. Using the scarf covering my lower face, I wiped the sweat from my skin. Suddenly, the jeep shot forward and jerked over the rocky ground. I bounced up and whacked my head on the roof. “Fucking hell! Give me a chance to buckle up.”

“Not a fucking chance. That was far too close for comfort.” Steve never took his eyes off what had once been a road but now was more like a dirt track with giant boulders scattered across it. 

I reached for the seat belt with one hand while holding on to the dashboard with the other to try and prevent my now throbbing head from making contact with the metal again. 

“Why can’t you be like any normal person and choose to take pictures of fucking flowers or...something,” Steve demanded.

I snorted. “Because I’ve never been a follower.”

“Well, this follower is quitting the second we get on the plane out of here.”

The fear was tangible in the confines of the jeep. “You know you’ve told me that nine times over the years?”

His gaze shifted to me briefly, a deep vee appearing between his brows. “I fucking mean it this time. I’m too old for this shit. ‘Steve, I’ve a great opportunity for you, come work for me’. Great opportunity to get your arse shot at more like.”

 He mimicked me to perfection, and for the first time in days, a smile tugged at the corner of my lips. “What’s not great about this life?” I said in his northern accent.

“You’re not fucking funny, so stop talking.” 

The whiteness of his knuckles as he clung to the steering wheel got me to shut up and stop distracting him. Long minutes passed as Steve drove us towards the bit of ground that professed to be a private landing strip, but in reality was just a bit of open land someone had fenced off. 

The sounds of the mortar attacks lessened with each mile he drove, yet I still didn’t breathe easy.

“Is the plane ready to take off the second we get there?” Steve asked, breaking the silence after several minutes.

“It is. I asked Hal to have everything ready for a quick escape. You did the research on the private landing strip. Do you think we’ll encounter any issues?” The thing about countries like this one? Their governments didn’t want the outside world to see what was really happening. I’d had my equipment taken in the past. I’d quickly learnt to remove the film from the camera and replace it with shots that wouldn’t arouse too much suspicion if they developed the photos. 

I reached for the camera bag when I realised in my haste to escape, I’d not changed out the spool. A minute later, the camera was back in the bag, and I’d tucked the reel into a pocket that was hidden inside my clothing. I’d had special pockets inserted into my trousers that weren’t obvious, in areas a normal search wouldn’t normally check. 

“I triple checked this place, and the money I handed over should keep the guy quiet...hopefully.”

He didn’t sound all that convinced as he drew to a stop outside the ten-foot-tall, barbed-wire gates. The small, private airfield housed one building that looked more like an outhouse than a control tower. 

There was a helicopter and one plane, which looked as if it would fall apart the second it tried to take off, tucked off to the left side of the building. The sleek-looking jet that I owned was so out of place it was almost funny. 

I sighed. 

The thing had been purchased for one purpose. To get me in and out of countries fast after I’d learnt I didn’t like to be detained and questioned about what I was up to. My mother had not been best pleased to find herself having to bail me out of tricky situations, using her power and influence to get my arse out of jail. I’d not been too happy about the situation either, to be honest. My mother and I didn’t see eye to eye on my choice of career before that. After that…well, we didn’t talk about it.

The man we’d met when we landed six hours earlier appeared from the shack. His clothes were threadbare, and his hair was badly in need of a cut. The beard was scruffy, and I was sure it contained bits of food. He hadn’t given us his name. He was only interested in the cash we’d offered to land here. 

The sound of metal grinding on metal was deafening, even with the windows of the jeep closed. The rusty gates groaned in what sounded like relief when they clanged against the metal posts that stopped it from hitting the fence. “Quick, quick,” the man shouted, motioning to us.

I glanced over my shoulder, half-convinced I’d see an army chasing us. I didn’t breathe any easier when I saw nothing but the dirt road we’d travelled on and the baron, rocky land covered in a shimmering heat haze.

“Quick, quick,” he repeated after Steve parked inside the gates. 

“Do you think he knows any other words?” Steve asked, his dry sense of humour appearing to have returned now we were back at the plane.

“Possibly not, but let’s not ask right now. He seems to know something we don’t.” 

Exactly five minutes later, Hal taxied down the dirt strip, and we were sailing up in the air. I glanced down at the land beneath, feeling the weight of the camera spool pressing against my leg. Bone deep weariness followed. 

I was done with this life.

I blew out a breath and looked back at Steve. “Contact Sigrid and tell her I can do the photoshoot she was after me doing for her.”

Steve’s relief came quick, then the humour. “You know she’s not going to give you a minute's peace the second I contact her.”

I gave a heartfelt sigh and looked back out at the ruined land below. “It’ll be better than this. That’s all that matters right now.”